Claire Walker

‘Italian Scots seem to be everywhere at the Edinburgh Festival; and at least ten of them seem to be called Richard Demarco.' The year was 1970 and the words John Gale’s, writing in The Observer.

Demarco: impresario, educator, innovator, visionary, catalyst (he’ll not thank you for calling him an artist), has attended every Edinburgh Festival since its inception in 1947. He will become a nonagenarian on July 9th, but the energy, intellect, curiosity

and enthusiasm for life, art and the love of truth still crackle. There are as many Richard Demarcos today as there were in 1970 and not one of them will miss this year’s Festival.

The reach and depth of Demarco’s impact in Scotland, Europe and wider afield is immense – and immensely difficult to encapsulate. Sir Nicholas Serota, art historian, curator and, until 2017, director of The Tate, said: “I first met the inspiring figure of Ricky Demarco nearly 50 years ago when his boundless enthusiasm brought him to Oxford where I was director of what is now Modern Art Oxford.

“An artist, a writer and a philosopher – he brought contemporary visual arts to Edinburgh in the 1960s and 70s, his large survey exhibitions gave the Festival an international importance that was unmatched by any other gallery or exhibition in the UK. He introduced the work of outstanding artists like Joseph Beuys and Tadeusz Kantor to thousands of people.

"He also presented new art from other parts of the world, especially from what was then Eastern Europe, long before other people were interested.”

“Ricky was a pied piper,” Serota adds, “Whose optimism and energy gathered together artists, funders and students to realise projects that had never been seen before in this country.”

This was the time of the Cold War, a time when Eastern Europe was divided from the West by a metaphorical Iron Curtain and a literal Berlin Wall. Few were the Westerners who passed through Checkpoint Charlie to the East. Yet, in pursuit of art, Demarco crossed the Iron Curtain over 40 times. At a time when Scotland was

in post-war recovery and rationing a vivid memory, when austerity and dourness were the order of the day, Demarco was demolishing artistic borders and boundaries.

“Our tendency had been inward-looking, self-obsessed,” says Andrew Marr, artist and broadcaster. “But Richard was kicking open doors – especially to Eastern Europe.”

According to Arthur Watson, artist and former president of the Royal Scottish Academy - and a man whose life has been braided with Demarco’s for 50 years, the contribution Demarco has made to Scottish culture has been ‘immeasurable’.

“He was there when no one else was there – going back and forth through the Iron Curtain when no one else was paying any attention [to Eastern European art and artists]. Richard was the only way through which these artists were seen outside their own country.”

Unsurprisingly, Demarco had little time for the approved-of art he was being presented with on his initial forays to the Eastern Bloc. Watson explains: “In every case it was ‘official’ art he was being shown on his visits – they wouldn’t let him near students of the arts. It was only on his third or fourth visit that he got – through meeting people and making contacts – to meet the people he really wanted to

connect with.”

It became a leitmotif for his life: “Richard was always promoting the art that no official wanted him to see.”

Demarco’s ethic at that time has also remained a constant: it is the founding principle of the Edinburgh Festival: to heal the wounds of war through the languages of the arts.

Richard Demarco was raised in Portobello, the son of Scottish-Italian parents – his paternal family hailed from Picinisco, close to Monte Cassino. Richard attended the local Catholic primary school. He says: “I wasn’t allowed to go to school for a month after Mussolini came to power,” he says. “I was attacked in the

playground of my Roman Catholic school – attacked by other Catholics – for being Italian.

“Our school was about a mile from central Portobello and we went there under police protection – there were about 100 kids. We weren’t under police protection because we were Italian. No. It was because we were Catholic.

So within the large Catholic ghetto in Portobello, I was in an Italian ghetto.”

A ghetto within a ghetto. Bullying typified his days. Once, aged about nine or ten, he was attacked in the shower at Portobello Public Baths by a group of teenage boys who battered him till, “I could taste the blood running down my face.”

One evening, while playing on Portobello beach with his brother, they watched a burning plane flying towards them. “It looked like a dragon,” he says. “I could see the German pilots inside, it was so close. Then suddenly the sand was flying around us and we realised there was a Spitfire behind the plane, shooting it down.”

By some miracle, the boys weren’t hit and Richard saw the report of the pilots’ deaths in the following day’s paper. With his parents’ consent, he attended the funerals of the German fighter pilots. “There are photographs from that day with small child among the adults – that’s me.”

At Holy Cross Academy, Demarco was taught art by Theresa Clarke. “‘I am Miss Theresa Clarke!’” she announced to her class. “She was a dead ringer for Miss Jean Brodie – loved all things Italian,” says Demarco. “Her favourite pupil had been an Italian boy of 16 who’d left Holy Cross to go to art college. She gave me his notebooks and insisted I sit at his desk at the back of the class, explaining that I

had a responsibility to follow in his footsteps. His name was Eduardo Paolozzi.” In a small but interesting coincidence, Paolozzi’s family also came from Monte Cassino.

Demarco went on to study at Edinburgh College of Art (where he met then-life model Sean Connery), then after two years’ National Service, he taught art at Duns Scotus Academy in Corstorphine. “I didn’t teach art in my art room,” he insists. “I read excerpts from The Catcher In The Rye and played them West Side Story – which had never been heard in the UK.”

A co-founder of The Traverse Theatre and its gallery in 1963, Demarco says of the latter: “It was simply an extension of my art room at school.” He and other organisers left the Traverse after three years to establish what would become The Richard Demarco Gallery, a charitable organisation. Demarco vehemently insists: “I have never owned an art gallery. Whatever space I used was run by a board of directors as a charity.” Then, gnomically, he adds: “Some of the board couldn’t take the rough and tumble of life on the precipitous slopes of the mountain of truth.”

Truth. Demarco has pursued it doggedly over the years: refusing to bow to prevailing fashion, resisting the lure of lucre and the kow-tow demanded by the establishment. “Making art is not to be done because it's a way of earning a living, art is an expression of love – for the beauty and truth that the artist sees.” Art is not, Demarco insists: “To be created for a major exhibition, judged as a success if it sells out. Van Gogh never sold anything! The only person who ever looked at his work was his brother.” Demarco is deeply dismayed by the meretriciousness he observes in the art world – visual and performing. “Art isn’t about entertainment, for

God’s sake! It’s about life and death.”

In his pursuit of truth, Demarco remains singularly unafraid of feather-ruffling: “The enemy of art is the art world,” he declares. “Especially today, where the rule is that unless the art guarantees reward in financial terms and conforms to the rules laid down by bureaucrats, the art will not receive the attention it deserves.” He holds fast to his love of, and belief in, art as a balm for the soul, saying: “I have never wavered from thinking that the language of art is the one great language that humans use. It is superior in every way to the language of the market, politics, academe – and even that of the philosopher and theologian.”

Demarco readily acknowledges his role as critical outsider: “I’m one of those difficult human beings who asks questions – questions that should be asked.” It doesn’t always make for popularity. Then again, Demarco was never interested in that particular chimera.

It’s no surprise he developed a reputation as a maverick, an iconoclast, but to pigeonhole this originator thus is too easy, too lazy. Michael Lloyd, broadcaster and journalist, is making a documentary about Demarco, whom he has known for 40 years. “People make the mistake of thinking him a showman,” Lloyd says, “Someone with the gift of the gab who can charm himself into any situation. Actually, that’s just what you get on the surface. In fact, he has very strong ideals and he wants to see those ideals realised. They’re not always practical – but irrespective of practicalities he is interested in trying for the best.

“Richard Demarco was always around and about people who were doing things that were challenging – the challenging is intrinsic to him. He’s not posing – he’s Italian – it comes naturally to him.” Demarco is, avowedly, a citizen of Europe. (Indeed he was formally acknowledged as such in 2013 when he was awarded the European Citizen’s Medal – the only UK citizen and only arts person to receive the honour) who regards himself as a ‘Celtic, Italian Catholic’, having learned during the Second World War that, ‘I wasn’t a Scot.’ Indeed, Demarco has said: “I have failed to live in Scotland all my life: I live in Europe.”

With The Demarco Gallery, he was able to give his international perspective and commitment to the avant garde, full rein. As Michael Lloyd has suggested, this wasn’t posing: this was a challenge – to defy geopolitical and artistic boundaries, to

see the previously unseen. To bring Eastern European art and artists to Scotland so we could see it too.

He organised contemporary Yugoslavian, Polish and

Romanian exhibitions, thereby enabling Scottish artists in turn to make Europe-wide connections. He showed the works of Paul Neagu, Tadeusz Kantor and Joseph Beuys, now names of international repute.

Beuys was the most prominent of the 35 artists Demarco brought to Edinburgh in 1970 for a fearless, paradigm-shifting exhibition – the palindromically-named: Strategy: Get Arts. Held at the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) during the Festival, it featured work from a new generation of artists from the Dusseldorf School. Dr Christian Weikop, senior lecturer in Modern and Contemporary German Art at the ECA , explains that these Dusseldorf-based artists, including Sigmar Polke, Blinky Palermo, Gunter Ueker and Gerhard Richter, were ‘border crossers’ from Communist East Germany. “All desired artistic and societal freedom and

experimentation, motivated by earlier memories of a lack of such freedom under National Socialism or by more recent negative experiences of the repressive apparatus of the Soviet Bloc,” he says. The exhibition was a watershed in Demarco’s life: the effects of which are still manifest in Scotland all these years down the line. It challenged perceptions – and the status quo of the art world – it

was a game-changer. Also, it marked a cornerstone in Demarco’s collaboration with Joseph Beuys.

After 1970, curators such as Nicholas Serota closely consulted Demarco when working with Beuys or exhibiting his work. Beuys (a Stuka pilot with the Luftwaffe during the Second World War) met Jimmy Boyle, the convicted murderer who became a sculptor, in 1980. Boyle’s creativity was nurtured in Barlinnie’s Special Unit. When it was decreed that Boyle was to be moved to HMP Saughton Prison in Edinburgh, Beuys went on hunger strike in protest. Demarco’s association with, and support of, Beuys was very public – to the chagrin of the estabishment. The Arts Council withdrew Demarco’s annual grant telling him that he “had dishonoured art”.

Demarco features in Bill Forsyth’s 1979 film, That Sinking Feeling, as a gallery director, proving in one short scene his wicked sense of fun and irony. “It was me letting the world know that it wasn’t a good idea to be a gallery director,” crows Demarco. “That film pulls the rug from under my own feet!”

Throughout most of his adult life, as artist, artistic impresario, provocateur, Richard Demarco has simultaneously been a documenter, collector of artifacts, art – and photographer of all he is involved with. He has assiduously collected the raw materials and building blocks of history. “He is a recorder as well as an impresario,” says Andrew Marr.

The results of this near-obsessive recording form The Demarco Archive. “What is in danger of being forgotten are the visual arts during that period – and under Richard’s aegis. You have to have the archive to inspire future generations,” Marr adds.

Arthur Watson agrees, saying: “The great thing about The Archive and Richard’s real achievement, is not showing people things they

hadn’t seen before – it was making connections between people who had never met before: Neil Kinnock and Larry Adler, for example.”

In 2008, 10,000 items from The Archive were digitised and made public by the University of Dundee. It provides a sumptuous resource, yet represents only a portion of the entire collection. Currently housed at Summerhall in Edinburgh, part of The Archive has already been damaged by rain ingress. Demarco says: “It’s not

an archive: it’s my life’s total artwork – a Gesamtkunstwerk – made by countless visual and performing artists.”

In a sense, The Archive is Richard Demarco: an enemy alien living in wartime Scotland marked him as an outsider from his earliest days. And, like all outsiders, he became an observer – then a recorder of all he observed. The Archive is the physical manifestation of Demarco’s core.

A site in Granton, Edinburgh, has been proposed for The Archive, but Michael Lloyd says that Demarco worries it wouldn’t be easily accessed by the public and that the people he has worked with deserve more. Douglas Graham, director and company

secretary of The Demarco Archive Trust, describes the archive as, literally, priceless. “How do you value an archive? Well, by its importance in relation to its subject matter. But this is unique – there is no comparator for it. Because there’s no definitive catalogue, you don’t know what’s in there. The only one who knows is Richard, so we need Richard to give us an idea of the value.

“Do you need someone to be dead before you can say he was a prophet? Graham asks. “In that case what percentage have you lost by not engaging during his lifetime? The Archive needs a recognition of its significance. That it hasn’t is partly to do with Richard’s approach – his refusal to bow down to the establishment.

“The Scottish Government should wake up and recognise the importance of The Archive. They should stop paying lip service to it.” Graham describes the support given to date by the Scottish Government as ‘piecemeal’ and argues that the realistic option is to digitise the entire archive – thus making it globally accessible:

“Its value to Scotland is that it records a period of Scottish history in relation to Europe,” he observes.

And that will be Demarco’s legacy: a massive resource for social historians, art historians, students of visual and performance art, and the public. It represents a painstaking recording of creativity in post-war Scotland, Europe, the world – its connections and cross-fertilisations.

“Richard Demarco’s take on things is so unique,” says Michael Lloyd. “He has hugely benefitted Scotland. Scotland is a better place for having Richard Demarco.”